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The Allure of OrderHigh Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling$
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Jal Mehta

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199942060

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199942060.001.0001

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Setting the Problem: The Deep Roots and Long Shadows of A Nation at Risk

Setting the Problem: The Deep Roots and Long Shadows of A Nation at Risk

(p.84) 5 Setting the Problem: The Deep Roots and Long Shadows of A Nation at Risk
The Allure of Order

Jal Mehta

Oxford University Press

Developments in the 1960s and 1970s brought schools under fire, but the modern American school reform movement began with the release of the famous A Nation at Risk report in 1983. Sponsored by the US Department of Education but largely written by a group of prominent academics, A Nation at Risk invoked crisis and framed a narrative so far reaching in its impact that it still governs the way we think about schooling 30 years later. Emphasizing the importance of education to economic competitiveness and the failings of American schooling in comparison with international competitors, A Nation at Risk presented a utilitarian and instrumental vision of education. It argued that schools, not society, should be held accountable for higher performance and that performance should be measured by external testing. As will be seen in the chapters to come, these assumptions underlay the state standards movement in the 1980s and 1990s and persist today in federal policy through No Child Left Behind. Much as the muckrakers shaped reform efforts in the Progressive Era and the Coleman Report did so to a lesser degree in the 1960s, A Nation at Risk powerfully framed the debate and set off a chain of events that resulted in the largest-ever eff ort to rationalize American schooling. A Nation at Risk has not been ignored in previous accounts of American educational history: it is often cited as a critical document in American school reform. I seek to build on this literature by examining, in more detail than previous work has, the creation, rhetoric, and reception of the report, as well as drawing on new state-level evidence to explore its impact. I also look deeper into the past, finding a more diverse set of antecedents than is usually identified, and further into the future, seeking to specify more precisely how A Nation at Risk affected subsequent reform efforts.

Keywords:   Ford Foundation, SAT scores, bricolage, bureaucracy, education organized as, decline and fall stories, educators, financing of education, international competition, paradigms, policy feedback, sociology of science, state standards, teacher quality

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